Vladia Mihailova

Whose is the problem with Balkan identity?

Whose is the problem with Balkan identity?
title: Whose is the problem with Balkan identity?
year: 2005
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 0861-1718
language: english
author(s): Vladia Mihailova
source: Balkan Reunion/Pub(lic) Conference, 2005, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia, ISBN: 0861-1718

The problem about Balkan identity does not lie in whether or not such identity exists, but rather on what level the problem exists, for whom or what it is a problem. I state my question in such a direct way because I believe that Balkan identity is problematic in a wider political field rather than on a personal level or in particular artistic circles. “Balkan identity” is a cliché which gravitates in public discourse and it is used in a chaotic way: as an advantage, as a disadvantage, as an excuse, as validation, etc. It is turning into a convenient screen concealing personal gain or simply incompetence. From this perspective “Balkan identity” is a market mechanism; it is, as Alexander Kyosev has said, a ‘marketable’ concept and label – this is what is on sale, this is what is on offer.

Things become much more different in the context of the state and the cultural face it constructs for itself. “Balkan identity” often is used to refer to “national identity” or “Bulgarian identity”. The question “What is Balkan identity and does it exist” becomes a question of the cultural face of the state and society. The idea about “the exotic Balkans” turns out to be a convenient cliché where Bulgarian identity fits in, which aims at concealing the lack of a clearly defined cultural presence. The problem of identity turns out to be a problem of the presentation of the state, hence it is a problem of cultural policy. However, the Bulgarian state is obviously not feeling awkward in such an inherited and constantly reproduced idea about itself in which identity is linked in a more absurd way with the past as a whole, with tradition and even folklore, and only tangentially refers to the present. At the same time in Bulgaria things happen, and are done, which certainly do not bear the mark of backwardness, periphery, or the exotic, there are circles and artists who export their product outside the country and who are really accepted in the global network of exchange of art works without the assistance or the liabilities of “Balkan or Bulgarian identity”. Paradoxically, however, in Bulgaria very little is known about these things (here I mean information in the public sphere), and even less is known by the so-called general public. The lack of promotion of these events or even individuals gives the wrong idea about regionalism and insufficiency of the culture created in Bulgaria, or leads to emphasising an outdated, traditional idea about it.

The problem exists mainly with regard to contemporary Bulgarian art which is stubbornly called “non-conventional”. The spaces of its existence are less and less Bulgarian spaces or at least not ones that ensure its wide public presentation. At the same time it is this art that bears a new “idea” about the Bulgarian that exceeds the boundaries of the local-regional cultural environment and naturally integrates itself in the European context. At the beginning of the 1990’s the so-called non-conventional means of expression are the core which generates the rebellion against, or the rejection of, power in the totalitarian state and of the party policy which turns art into ideology as regards the reaction in the sphere of visual art. It is this art, however, which is accused of plagiarism, of copying western models and of being non-Bulgarian, which seems to be perceived as non-authentic, non-Balkan, a specifically deceptive presence in the Bulgarian cultural environment. On the other hand, the idea about the Bulgarian overlaps much more with the traditional, even the archetypal. “The Mystery of Bulgarian voices” and paintings depicting dragons and fairy maidens are considered to be much more representative of Bulgaria and Bulgarianness than Nedko Solakov’s works, for instance (very often it is the artists who do this type of painting that call themselves Bulgarian or they are in search of their identity through the cliché “Bulgarian” or “Balkan” identity). At the same time the state policy with regard to the cultural representation of Bulgaria tends to reinforce the accepted idea about what is Bulgarian; it is too traditional and reproduces the cultural insufficiency complex of Bulgarian society by seeking the special and unique Bulgarianness in the exotic and strange – for the European folklore – archetypal depths. There is no contemporary art museum in Bulgaria and this shows the lack of awareness of the necessity to preserve this kind of art, or perhaps its presentation precisely as Bulgarian art?

The attempt to establish such a museum in Romania – however power-laden this mechanism proved to be with regard to art – at least showed the readiness of the country to make a new beginning in its history, to leave behind its totalitarian past and to create a contemporary face with which to integrate in the European environment.

The question whether there is a common Balkan identity in this context is irrelevant because of the simple fact that, once taken outside the context of the particular cultural environment, the cliché “Balkan” can be attached to any kind of event thus serving any interests. In this sense it is nothing more than a label. In the context of the particular cultural environment, especially in the field of the cultural policy that a state carries out in order to construct its cultural face, the problem of Balkan identity is of special significance since it predetermines the cultural integration of a given society in the European context, a society and not an individual or a community! The problem of Balkan identity is a problem of the societies on the Balkans, to what extent and how they fight – or do not fight – against the clichéd ideas about themselves. It is, however, above all a problem of policy and to a much lesser degree a problem of art. It is for this reason that the Balkan identity conference took a polyphonic form in which few points of overlap emerged. Contemporary art, which in Bulgaria some still call non-conventional, exceeds the boundaries of the national and local context; it is not contemporary art that needs legitimacy or identity, but the state and society through/by means of contemporary art.

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